Iran releases two Christians held on apostasy charges

Iranian officials have released two Christian converts who were being held in prison on apostasy charges, one week after the Iranian Government voted overwhelmingly in favour of new legislation to introduce the death penalty for anyone who leaves the Muslim faith.

Mahmoud Mohammed Matin-Azad, 53, and Arash Ahmad-Ali Basirat, 40, were arrested in May and charged with apostasy following their conversion to Christianity from Islam.

Andy Dipper, head of Christian persecution watchdog Release International, gave a cautious welcome to news of their release.

"We're delighted Iran has dropped its charges against these men but existence is about to become even tougher for other Iranians seeking freedom of faith."

Their release follows a statement from the EU last week, in which it urged the Iranian Government to reconsider the debate on the draft bill on apostasy and pressed for the release of people imprisoned because of their religious affiliation.

Release said that strained relations with the US have made the situation even more precarious for Christians in Iran, where they make up less than one per cent of the mainly Muslim population.

Christians in Iran are often suspected of being spies for the US or Israel, and Release and other groups working with the persecuted church believe that hundreds of Christians from Muslim backgrounds have been arrested since the Iranian revolution.

There have been a number of Christians arrested because of their faith in recent months, including Ramtin Soodmand, whose father Pastor Hossein Soodmand was hanged in 1990 for converting to Christianity from Islam. Shahin Zanboori was reportedly arrested as he shared his faith and tortured by police officers whilst under interrogation. He is expected to be charged with spying.

According to Release, two Christians died in July after being badly beaten during a police raid and that at least six Protestant pastors have been killed since 1990.

Release has launched an appeal to help support Iranian believers.

"Release is giving financial support to church leaders who've lost their jobs, running training conferences, providing outreach materials, and is helping a special ministry to women, who are hugely disadvantaged in Iranian society," said Dipper.

"We need to do more, so we've launched the Iranian appeal. Please help us to help our brothers and sisters in Iran and to stand with them in this time of trial."

Barnabas Fund, another group working with the persecuted church, echoed Release's concerns.

"The provisional approval of this bill has serious implications for Iranian Christian converts, who already face much persecution from the authorities," said Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of Barnabas Fund.

"It seems that the Iranian government is willing to continue on its course of complete Islamisation at the expense of the most basic human rights and in contradiction to Article 23 of the Iranian constitution. The Iranian Church needs our prayers more than ever."

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